Web Page Turner

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Salon magazine debuted on the Internet in 1995, it took advantage of the new medium by inviting readers to discuss--electronically, of course--whether magazines on the Web are a good idea.

"Not this one," came the flaming first reply. "The subject range is too broad, the depth of all of the pieces is far too shallow, and this will only get worse as readers chime in from all directions."

Since then, Salon has done a lot to quiet those early critics. But in many ways, the pioneering, San Francisco-based "Webzine" is still trying to answer that fundamental question it posed.

Journalistically, Salon has been a hit, earning plaudits for its engaging columns and investigative reporting. Commercially, however, the jury is still out as the magazine continues to lose money, and its audience, while growing, remains little more than a speck in the online universe.

Salon hopes that a stable of new advertisers and a premium service due in the fall will help it become profitable by this time next year. The site, at http://www.salonmagazine.com, also hopes to reel in readers turned away by archrival Slate's recent decision to charge subscription fees.

Salon's founders realize they may never see the kind of riches reaped by other Internet businesses. But at the tender age of 2 1/2, Salon has already surpassed the average life span of new print magazines, and that is an achievement in itself.

"Maybe I'm too much a '60s person," said founder David Talbot, 46, who made at least three Beatles references during a half-hour interview. "But I don't dream of IPO day. Money is not my measure of success. I want my epitaph to read: 'He made a cultural impact.' "

In that regard, Salon is well on its way. It may not have been the first Webzine (New York-based http://www.feedmag.com arrived six months earlier). And Slate, because of its Microsoft backing, has gotten more attention. But by many measures, Salon has emerged as the leader.

Salon was Time magazine's "best Web site of 1996" and has won Webbies--the cyberspace equivalent of the Oscars--for two years running. It is read by more people and is closer to turning a profit than its rivals, analysts say.

"I don't see online magazines ever truly thriving compared to search engines and other things on the Web today," said Patrick Keane of Jupiter Communications in New York. "But Salon has shown they can be successful in terms of building a magazine and doing good work."

And that, Salon's founders say, is all they ever wanted.

Salon's office is surprisingly subdued compared with the eye-popping decor common among its digital brethren in the city. At Wired magazine, for instance, the fluorescent walls are more colorful than the parrot that serves as the office mascot.

But then Salon never set out to be a new-media firebrand like Wired. Its space--clean and cubicle, with a few framed Internet awards hanging in the lobby--reflects its origin as an online oasis for old-media refugees.

Many of its staffers, including Talbot, came from the San Francisco Examiner, an underdog afternoon paper that was beset by a newsroom strike in late 1994.

During the strike, Examiner staffers took to putting stories on the fledgling Web to keep readers informed. Afterward, many saw the Web as a new career possibility. Talbot, who didn't even have a modem at the time of the strike, left several months later to launch Salon with a $50,000 investment from Apple Computer Inc.

"I just wanted to do something that was fun and got me out of the Examiner," he said.

Aiming to be both "pop" and smart, Salon prides itself on provocative commentary on the media and entertainment industries, as well as politics and Internet culture. Other Salon departments include "Mothers Who Think," conceived as an antidote to dull parenting magazines, and "Table Talk," a reader forum with chat rooms on dozens of topics.

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In a medium known for the post-first-ask-questions-later policy of cybergossip Matt Drudge, Salon has worked hard to establish serious journalistic credentials. In recent months, critics began to take notice as Salon scooped the mainstream press with investigative pieces about Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr.

"A lot of these Webzines seem to be all punditry and no reporting," said James Wolcott, a media critic for Vanity Fair magazine. "Salon seems to have transcended that. They pounce on things very fast, and they haven't let the audience dictate their coverage. I think they've proven a Webzine can work."

But in trying to be both pop and smart, Salon can sometimes seem schizophrenic, caught between the New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly. It has been criticized for being too fluffy and a little too shameless in the pursuit of Web traffic.

While Slate has an advice column called "Dear Prudence," for example, Salon unabashedly offers "Sexpert Opinion." A recent edition of the column celebrated anal sex, the "fastest growing sex act in America today."

Scott Rosenberg, a senior editor at Salon, acknowledged that such columns have raised a few eyebrows but argued that the extent and tone of the sexual content are entirely appropriate.

"The truth is, people are really interested in sex," he said. "Are we putting up dirty pictures? We could really boost our traffic by doing that. No, we are doing it in sync with the rest of our site."

In straddling the worlds of old and new media, Salon's cultural loyalties can also seem a little ambiguous.

Fulfilling the early promise of the Web, Salon has launched the careers of talented writers who had been neglected by the mainstream press. But Salon has also trotted out old-media standbys, including post-feminist author Camille Paglia and storyteller Garrison Keillor, best known for his show on radio (gasp!).

In an interview, Talbot rhapsodized about using the influence of his Web site to turn the cultural spotlight on something besides movie stars.

What would he illuminate instead? "Books and literature," he said. You can't get more old-media than that.

Some say this explains Salon's success.

"I think Salon works because it isn't cutting edge," Wolcott said. "The stuff on [Webzines] Feed and Suck dates very badly. Suck had an anthology out recently, and it seemed like a bunch of tired rants from the Village Voice circa 1989."

Salon's numbers suggest it is doing something right. Executives say that revenue is on pace to hit $6 million this year--about what it costs to run the magazine--compared with just $200,000 collected in 1996.

Advertisers are finally pouring in, with more than 85 on board this year, compared with just five a year ago. The new crop includes major brands, such as Mercedes-Benz and IBM.

Salon depends almost entirely on advertising revenue and has no intention of following Slate down the path of charging for subscriptions. "There's so much free content on the Web we feel that would be disastrous for our business," said Salon Publisher Michael O'Donnell.

The subscription model does seem daunting. Slate used to attract as many as 275,000 unique visitors a month, but now lets only about 20,000 through the gates. The $400,000 in annual revenue it collects by charging subscribers $20 a year covers just a fraction of Slate's annual costs and could easily be offset by a drop in advertising.

But Slate executives point out that the advertising model is equally unproven. "Everyone's making a big bet here," said Colene McBeth, associate publisher of Slate. "Given what we've seen, we felt we needed to make this move."

Salon plans to hedge its bet by plucking more of its revenue from readers' pockets through a premium service called Salon Club that's due in the fall. For $20 a year, members will get personalized content, discounts from Salon advertisers and other goodies.

In the meantime, the primary objective is to build readership. Salon's audience is growing but still amounts to little more than a rounding error compared to the ratings enjoyed by true blockbuster sites. Yahoo.com, for instance, attracted 42.4% of Net users in April, while Salon, though it's the leading Webzine, captured just 0.4%, according to researcher Media Metrix.

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Talbot says Salon has a core readership of about 60,000 people. But according to Media Metrix, Salon is nowhere near the top 500 sites on the Net and is only slightly more popular than the University of Maine's site.

That reflects just how humbling an experience the Internet has been for media companies. With giants such as Time Warner losing small fortunes online, it's no wonder that other early Webzines such as Word and Charged have withered away.

Skeptics say this may be the case for some time because the Web is such a diffuse medium, with so much content competing for so few eyeballs.

More fundamentally, many question whether the computer is a suitable medium for literary content. Experts agree that computer monitors are still inferior to paper when it comes to reading text and far more difficult to curl up with on a couch.

"There was a lot of hope early on that the Internet would create a new generation of media moguls," said Bill Bass, an analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. "But none of these Webzines are going to be the movers and shakers of the Net."

Executives at Salon still hold out hope that a modest payoff will come. O'Donnell talked of starting a Salon television show, a Salon print magazine and building the brand until it is worthy of a stock offering.

But even if moguldom eludes him, Talbot says he is happy running a magazine that reflects his interests and working with writers who make him smile, none of which would have been possible were it not for the publishing magic of the Internet.

"I was told point-blank that I could never launch this kind of smart, cultural publication in print," Talbot said. "Now there are people in New York going, 'Wow, there's intellectual life in California!' "

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Staff writer Greg Miller can be reached via e-mail at greg.miller@latimes.com.

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